(photo credit: Rafael D. Frankel)
While final results from the Palestinian Authority Legislative elections are not expected until the weekend, the army has already reached the conclusion that Hamas has turned into what some officers are calling a two-headed monster.
One head rejects Israel's existence and continues to assemble an army in the Gaza Strip while directing attacks against Israel. The second head is a politician, which has caused senior IDF officers to ask whether the military's longstanding policy of no contact with the group will change.
Until now the army has had a clear attitude toward Hamas - no contact at all. The office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories has for years bypassed the radical group even when dealing with routine issues such as water and electricity supply that affected cities run by Hamas mayors. The only official contact the army had with the terror group, one officer said Wednesday, was when soldiers arrested Hamas operatives or killed them.
But now, with Hamas as a political party, the "no contact" approach might need to change, senior officials admitted Wednesday, and the army might need to begin speaking directly with Hamas politicians.
Maj.-Gen. (res.) Itzik Eitan backed up that notion Wednesday, claiming that Israel, which he said failed to curb Hamas's rise, would most probably find itself talking to the group in the near future.
"Our failure to see through the different [peace] processes with the PA has led to the Hamas's drastic political rise," said Eitan, who retired from the IDF in 2002 after serving as OC Central Command. "If the Palestinian Authority had been responsible and taken action, the Hamas's climb would have been stymied."
Another example of a "process" Israel missed out on, Eitan said, was the evacuation of the Jewish community in Hebron. Following the 1994 massacre by Baruch Goldstein, then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin had the opportunity to evacuate the settlers.
"Just look at what is happening there now," Eitan said. "Look at the violence over the evacuation of a couple of storefronts."
From the army's and Eitan's point of view it is too late to stop Hamas. Representatives already run large PA-controlled cities such as Kalkilya and Nablus, and if the radical group forms or joins the next PA government they will almost certainly be high-ranking cabinet ministers.
"It'll be pretty difficult to ignore them if they are running the health and social ministries," one Israeli official said.
But even if Hamas enters into a PA government, senior defense officials stressed, Israel's security will outweigh any other consideration and the army will not be restricted from taking military action against the radical group.
The relationship, one officer said, would be twofold: "During the day we can talk to them and at night we can arrest them."
As to the question of how to deal with Hamas, the answer, one official said, may have come from Hamas itself. Earlier in the week, Mahmoud al-Zahar, a leading Hamas candidate, said the group would talk to Israel but only through a third party, similar to Israel's relationship with Hizbullah.
For now, the army said it was willing to continue the "no contact" approach, but officials said Hamas would begin to realize that it had an interest in talking with Israel.
"We will continue supplying them electricity and water since that is not the question," one senior Civil Administration official said. "The real question is whether they will recognize Israel's existence and we can sit down with them to negotiate a final agreement."